Victorian society prescribed a strict role for women as “angels of the home” (indeed, “The Angel in the House” was a popular poem of the Victorian era). To be an angel of the home was to take care of that home, attend to one’s children, ensure the comfort of one’s husband…and little else. Doyle’s female characters fit this mold, but only marginally. When the situation demands it, they find themselves able to break free of this stereotype and take real, effective action, altering both their own (fictive) lives and the plot of the story itself. In this way, Doyle argues that the old Victorian ideal of women as little more than domestic angels is absurdly limiting, as women—though they are empathetic creatures who may truly enjoy caring for their families—are capable of so much more.
There are three women who are essential to the plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles: Mrs. Barrymore, Laura Lyons, and Beryl Stapleton. Each of them is played for a fool by the men in their lives, who attempt to control and manipulate them through various means. Selden constantly abuses his sister, Mrs. Barrymore. The convict knows that Mrs. Barrymore has a soft spot for him and has used it to mooch off of her all his life. This reaches its peak when Selden escapes from prison and expects his sister to provide him with food, drink, and clothing while he hides out in the moor. That is, Selden expects his sister to be an “angel of the home” despite the fact that sheltering him is a crime for which she could pay dearly. Jack Stapleton leads on Laura Lyons, using her to lure Sir Charles Baskerville to his death. Lyons is what was known in the Victorian era as a “fallen woman” (the unavoidable association with “fallen angel” was intentional), meaning that she had engaged in prenuptial sexual activity and possibly became pregnant out of wedlock as a result (this is so scandalous that Mortimer says that she was disgraced for having married without her father’s consent “and perhaps one or two other things as well”). Fallen women were essentially untouchable—no respectable man would want to marry one, and no other women would want to associate with one for fear of being stigmatized. Thus, Lyons is forced to eke out a living as a typist, work which barely gets her by. She depends on charity to make ends meet. Stapleton offers to marry Lyons because it would give her a chance at being a proper angel of the home, but his offer is only a rouse to gain emotional control over her. Beryl Stapleton is also abused by Stapleton, who expects her to remain silent about his murderous plans strictly out of her love for him. This is despite the fact that Stapleton attempts to pawn her off as his sister, even allowing Sir Henry Baskerville to court Beryl.
Despite being played as fools, however, each woman finds herself in control of their situation, with great power over the men who appear to control them. Beryl Stapleton and Laura Lyons both know enough about Stapleton’s plans to ensure that the police would arrest him if they were to turn on him. Similarly, Selden is at the mercy of his sister, who has only to turn him in to the authorities. Both Stapleton and Selden expect the women to obey them in the traditional way, however, and never suspect how their reliance on these women has made them weak. That is, they fail to recognize what the women are capable of, thinking of them as little more than housewives. This is a failure, because in all three instances, the women turn on the men in order to better their situation.
By realizing their power and using it, the women enable Holmes to see a case through prosecution that he might not otherwise have been able to, even though he knew the murderer and the murderer’s entire plan. The murder of Sir Charles Baskerville, for instance, could never be proved without the help of Laura Lyons, who alone knew the truth about the covert meeting Selden sought between her and Sir Charles Baskerville. Without this information, Selden is at worst guilty of attempted murder: a far less serious crime. Thus, without the help of women, even the great Sherlock Holmes would not have truly cracked the Baskerville case.
Doyle’s strong female characters notwithstanding, one should not be too quick to read a modern feminist sensibility into Doyle’s work. While Jean Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle’s daughter, suggested that her father saw women not as men’s equals, but rather as their superiors, Doyle nevertheless took a measured approach to creating equality for women. For instance, he felt that they should be able to divorce more easily but simultaneously felt that giving them the right to vote would create havoc in marriages. In this way, his more moderate personal views seemed to reflect those of his society in general: both seeking to overcome the notion of a severely limited Victorian ideal but neither quite ready for full equality.
Strong Women ThemeTracker
Strong Women Quotes in The Hound of the Baskervilles
He is much attached to her, no doubt, and would lead a lonely life without her, but it would seem the height of selfishness, if he were to stand in the way of her making so brilliant a marriage.
Some deep sorrow gnaws ever at her heart. Sometimes I wonder if she has a guilty memory which haunts her, and sometimes I suspect Barrymore of being a domestic tyrant. I have always felt there was something singular and questionable in this man's character […].
She kept coming back to it that this was a place of danger, and that she would never be happy until I had left it.
Oh, John, John, have I brought you to this? It is my doing, Sir Henry—all mine. He has done nothing except for my sake, and because I asked him.
Her father refused to have anything to do with her, because she had married without his consent, and perhaps for one or two other reasons as well.
Mrs. Lyons […] you are taking a very great responsibility and putting yourself in a very false position by not making an absolutely clean breast of all you know. If I have to call in the aid of the police you will find how seriously you are compromised.
The gleam of the match which he struck shone upon his clotted fingers and upon the ghastly pool which widened slowly from the crushed skull of the victim. And it shone upon something else which turned our hearts sick and faint within us—the body of Sir Henry Baskerville!